Editorial: Youth justice system needs a review

Ravi Chandiramani
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

It is 100 years since the 1908 Children's Act ushered in radical changes to the treatment of young offenders.

Our feature this week charts the major developments in youth justice over the past century. Despite many improvements in the system over that time, the present-day situation is nothing to crow about. England and Wales has one of the highest youth custody rates in Europe, while reoffending rates continue to be sky-high.

There are some positive developments under way. This year's Youth Crime Action Plan, along with measures co-ordinated by the Youth Taskforce put a welcome emphasis on prevention work. And, in a good move for the rehabilitation of young offenders, this week's Queen's Speech was expected to confirm responsibility for education of children in custody will switch to local authorities.

But this government, like governments before, talks tough on crime, not wanting to risk the public perception of letting convicted criminals off the hook. In its latest corporate plan, the Youth Justice Board actually scrapped its target to reduce youth custody numbers. The government advocates a "triple-track" approach of enforcement, support and prevention. But tensions between the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Children, Schools and Families in jointly overseeing youth justice in England and Wales appear to be of the more fractious than the creative type. As a result, we have a youth justice system with plenty of tinkering through numerous pilots and pathfinders but sorely lacking in a clear direction of travel.

This is why we need a root-and-branch review of the youth justice system. It should try to break the link between children in the care and criminal justice systems. There are 60,000 looked-after children. A shocking 40 per cent of the 3,000 or so children in custody have been in the care system. Barnado's chief executive Martin Narey proclaimed last week that Baby P, had he survived, would have grown up to be "feral" and a "parasite". Our response would have been to lock him up. The crucial point is this: when children behave badly it is generally because they have been treated badly. A century on from the 1908 Act, this is the toughest problem for the youth justice system. We must not shy away from it.

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